Here’s how Rick Barnes and his staff will recruit at Tennessee
One month into what figures to be Rick Barnes’ final stop as a college basketball coach, we begin to get an idea of how Tennessee will procure its talent. Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, and the way Barnes and his staff operate, there will be no rush to judgment, no scramble to fill jerseys with warm bodies, just for the sake of completing a roster.
This philosophy applies to the crazy, early days any coach goes through after taking a new job, and it applies to the future. There will be no late signing period grabs at junior college players or fifth-year senior transfers to make up for recruiting misses made earlier in the year.
Some Tennessee fans who marveled at the mad dash made by one-and-done coach Donnie Tyndall and his staff last year—remember eight signees in the span of a month?—might have been getting a bit antsy waiting on Barnes and his assistants to bring in some players. The wait was finally over on Tuesday, when it was announced that junior college big man Ray Kasongo and high school point guard Lamonte Turner were going to become Vols. But if Barnes and his assistants hadn’t been satisfied that they found the right pieces to fill the glaring holes on their roster, it might have taken longer. No panic buttons were pushed, and none were about to be pushed.
In talking with a couple of Barnes’ assistants, a sense of calm is evident. Patience is a key. Finding players that fit is of paramount importance.
“It starts with having chemistry on a staff,” said associate head coach Rob Lanier, who followed Barnes from Texas along with Chris Ogden and also recommended Barnes hire one of his best friends in the business, Desmond Oliver, who had been on the staff at Charlotte. “You also have to have a grasp of who your head coach is, and what he’s all about. That’s a starting point. It’s funny, but for a lot of my career, it was just about trying to get good players.”
That changed when Lanier went to work for Barnes at Texas in 1999, and was reinforced when Lanier was on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida (2007-11) and by a second stint with Barnes (2011-present).
“Working with Billy gave me some better perspective,” Lanier said. “It wasn’t about having good players. It was about winning it all.”
Lanier and other Florida assistants came up with their own shorthand, DMM—Disposition, Mindset, Makeup—to describe the kind of players the boss wanted.
Matt McCall, who worked with Lanier at Florida and was recently hired as the head coach at Chattanooga, laughed when asked about DMM. And he did a good job of explaining what it was all about.
“Disposition,” McCall said. “How do they handle themselves on the floor? What’s their disposition like, their body language? Are they an energy giver, or an energy drainer?
“Makeup. Are they a tough kid or a soft kid? A competitive kid, or do they shy away from that? How tough are they? How fearless?
“Finally, what’s a kid’s mindset like? Do they get down on themselves? Do they get distracted easily? Are there things that get in the way of being a really, really good player?”
Lanier says Texas recruited with the same philosophy, and now, so does Tennessee.
“Your staff has to have that same mindset,” Lanier said. “In college basketball today, of course most assistants want to run their own programs, and sometimes they can have their own agenda in recruiting. It wasn’t like that at Florida, or Texas, and it’s not going to be like that at Tennessee. Our coaches will have a collective mindset when it comes to our recruiting philosophy.
“We’re going to do what’s best for coach Barnes, and for Tennessee basketball.”
That’s why it took almost a month on the job for Barnes and his staff to find those two pieces—a point guard and a rim protecting post man—they so desperately needed. Unlike former Tennessee coaches Bruce Pearl, Cuonzo Martin and Tyndall, Barnes, Lanier and Ogden came to Knoxville directly from a power conference school, where they had developed relationships with a different caliber of player. They’ve put those relationships to work at Tennessee.
A pessimist might ask why it took so long. An optimist would say that Barnes and his assistants have quickly put their stamp on the program.
That much is apparent with Kasongo. Barnes’ teams always have shot blockers, and Kasongo has all the ingredients to be one of the best in the country next season. He’s 6-foot-10, with a 7-4 wingspan. He’s got a 42-inch vertical jump and excellent timing. That’s why Kasongo blocked 68 shots at the College of Southern Idaho this season while playing just 15.2 minutes a game. That translated to an average of 5.4 blocks per 40 minutes, strong by anyone’s standard.
Tennessee will sign at least one more big man of Kasongo’s ilk, which is to say long and lively. Don’t be surprised if he comes from Canada.
Lanier’s hometown is Buffalo, N.Y., so it was only natural that, once he became a college assistant coach, he wandered north of the border to recruit.
“I was at St. Bonaventure [from 1992-97] and recruited some kids from Canada who had great careers,” Lanier said. “So I got to know people up there from the beginning of the growth of the game. This was a time when kids were just trying to get down here to play ball. Now, we’re all rushing up there.”
Lanier mined his Canadian connections to land Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson and Myck Kabongo for Texas. Now Tennessee has that pipeline open, and Lanier plans to take advantage.
“There’s still a certain measure of purity to those kids from Canada,” Lanier said. “There’s isn’t that sense of entitlement, and they play with a collective chip on their shoulder. So that connection is something we want to build on. We’ve got a history.”
The first Canadian to sign with the Vols, says Lanier, “has got a long way to go.” But Kasongo has the physical tools, and he’s ready to be coached. Most important, he fits the profile.
It’s a new era of basketball at Tennessee, led by a coach who’s been a winner at four different schools and assistants who know how to find him the players that work in his system. It’s as easy as D-M-M.
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